Four-Footed Despair: Our Review of ‘Murmur’

Four-Footed Despair: Our Review of ‘Murmur’

The central character of Heather Young’s precise debut feature, Murmur, could give Ace Ventura a run for his money with the number of animals she takes in to her small living space. But far from being some rambunctious Dolittle-esque domestic barn house, Young’s examination of animal companionship is rooted in an all-too-real sense of isolation and despair.

Somewhere in Nova Scotia, middle-aged Donna (Shan MacDonald) lives alone in a depressingly familiar apartment, vaping and sipping on wine to pass the days. It is gradually revealed that she was recently arrested for a DUI, forcing her to attend AA meetings and complete community service work at a veterinary clinic. Left completely alone and shunned by a daughter who won’t return her calls, Donna starts gravitating towards the animals at the clinic, particularly the ones with concerning medical issues. When a sickly dog named Charlie is due to be euthanized, Donna steps in to adopt him, despite the reservations of the clinic’s staff, who fear she is unfit to suitably care for the pet. Nevertheless, Donna promises to make it work and that this will be the only one.

But as soon as she brings Charlie home, an obsession begins. Donna continues to bring home stray animals from the clinic and spends her free time scouring the internet for needy pets to adopt. Before long, her apartment is overrun by dogs, cats and even a hamster, in an attempt to re-establish her worth in this world and keep a crushing sense of loneliness at bay.

The fraught psychological relationship between humans and animals has been a running theme through Young’s previous attention-grabbing short film work (especially 2014’s Howard and Jean, about an agoraphobic woman and her chihuahua, which Murmur could be seen as an extension of) and with her first feature, she interrogates the concept of “man’s best friend” with clear-eyed composure. Shooting in a tight square aspect ratio, she focuses on the minutiae of Donna’s day-to-day activities, creating an atmosphere of visual OCD that becomes increasingly dishevelled and stressful as the situation spirals out of control. It brings to mind the formal exactitude of Denis Côté or Ulrich Seidl, both of whom have explored animal-human relations in their surreal docu-fictions.

Murmur also feels spiritually close to the abstruse character studies of Kazik Radwanski, who has similarly teased out dramatic potential in non-actors through unflinching close-ups. As Donna, newcomer MacDonald gives us a lot with a little and Young keeps us invested in her plight without ever resorting to easy exposition. And while it would be easy for things to end on a bleak note as Donna’s life comes crashing down, Young leaves us with a glimmer of hope for her future, no matter how cold and grey her surroundings are.

As part of a rising new generation of artful Canadian filmmakers, Young is definitely someone to watch.

Murmur streams now through the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s Virtual Cinema. Director Heather Young’s previous shorts are available for free on Vimeo.

This post was written by
After his childhood dream of playing for the Mighty Ducks fell through, Mark turned his focus to the glitz and glamour of the movies. He's covered the extensive Toronto film scene for online outlets and is a filmmaker himself, currently putting the final touches on a low-budget (okay, no-budget) short film to be released in the near future. You can also find him behind the counter as product manager of Toronto's venerable film institution, Bay Street Video.
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